Labor Vs. Capitol Records

In our family, our dad always gets all the credit for coming from a place with powerful music history. He grew up in Florence, Alabama, home of jazz musician W.C. Handy; Sam Phillips, who went on to discover Elvis Presley and found Sun Studios; and the world-famous Muscle Shoals Sound that secured platinum hits for the Rolling Stones, Aretha Franklin, Willie Nelson, Paul Simon, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and others, backed by the Swampers.

Okay, that’s fair. I mean, have you seen Muscle Shoals?

 

 

But our mom’s side of the family, hailing from Scranton, Pennsylvania, has some musical heritage of its own. Our grandmother, the indomitable Jean, worked at the Capitol Records pressing plant in Scranton in her twenties, before she was married.

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The Scranton Button Company had started manufacturing, you guessed it, buttons, in a building on Brook Street in 1885. By the 1920s they had expanded beyond buttons into making gramophone records from button plastic.

Capitol Records, looking to increase their production capabilities, acquired Scranton Button Company in 1946. It soon became the main manufacturing plant for Capitol Records. Records went out across America, stamped and sealed from Scranton, PA.

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The Capitol Records building, née The Scranton Button Company.

It was a productive operation. Our grandmother was part of it, before leaving to raise children and help her husband run their family business, Leonard’s Pharmacy. But in 1959, things hit a snag.

Waves of labor strikes were rippling across the country as manufacturing workers bargained for better pay and benefits. Scranton, a town with a long history of labor unions stemming from its roots in railroads and anthracite coal mining, caught the bug.

At Capitol, the labor union had been negotiating a new contract with management for a few weeks when the clock ran out and their old contract expired. The new contract was determined to be unacceptable, and 500 workers walked out. Pretty standard stuff.

Except this went on for ten weeks.

The strike, which resulted in minimal violence, made national news. Both the Mayor of Scranton, James Hanlon, and the president of the Lackawanna Industrial Fund Enterprises, Roy Stauffer, sent telegrams to labor and management trying to end the strike. People wanted their records!

Screen Shot 2018-04-29 at 7.34.03 PM.pngIt wasn’t until September 1st, 1959 – the tail end of a long summer – that the International Association of Machinists finally accepted management’s proposal of a three-year contract for over 600 workers. The contract included five cents an hour contributed to each worker’s pension plan, 23 cents per hour wage increases over three years, and family coverage for health insurance.

And not a moment too soon.

It wouldn’t be long before Capitol Records signed one of the biggest recording artists of all time: four floppy-haired boys from Liverpool, England. In 1963, Capitol gained the exclusive U.S. rights to pressing and distributing the albums of The Beatles. The next year, The Beatles would release Meet the Beatles, which went platinum five times; A Hard Day’s Night (platinum four times); Twist and Shout (platinum three times); and The Beatles’ Second Album (platinum twice), along with a handful of singles and re-releases. And that was just 1964!

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Workers inspecting LPs on the day they returned post-strike. (Times-Tribune)

Things got busy in Scranton. Over half of all Capitol Beatles records were pressed at the Scranton plant, which had to hire rapidly to fill the need. The demand was good for the workers, too, since they were paid by how many records they pressed. The workers had gone from 24-hour-a-day picket lines to 24-hour-a-day production.

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Shamokin News-Dispatch, 1964

A few years ago the Times-Tribune interviewed some of the plant’s workers from the Beatlemania era. A former Capitol worker, Paul Lalley, recalled it as the time “when the (stuff) hit the fan and everything went crazy.” People worked three shifts a day. The Scranton plant shipped out 640,000 copies of I Want To Hold Your Hand. And when the plant manager laid off 75 employees, thinking the craze was slowing down, he immediately needed to hire them back the next day, the day the Beatles arrived in the U.S. in 1964.

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Demand continued at pace until the Beatles broke up in 1970, and by then, things had changed in the record pressing industry. In 1973, Capitol moved operations to newer plants in other cities, leaving Scranton in the dust.

If you have a Beatles record produced by Capitol, look next to the label to see if there’s a triangle engraved with the letters I-A-M. If so, it was produced in Scranton – the letters stand for the International Association of Machinists, the union that pushed for better wages and benefits over ten brutal weeks in 1959.

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Thanks to the people behind the “Capitol Records Pressing Plant, Scranton PA” Facebook group who have put together an impressive collection of archives, with many descendants of workers submitting photos and memories.

 

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